Approaches to intellectual disability in the Middle Ages

Show Navigation

By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits


A jester. Line engraving. (Wellcome Library no. 3233i)

The fourth seminar in the 2014-15 History of Pre-Modern Medicine academic seminar series, will take place on Tuesday 25th November.

Speaker: Dr Irina Metzler (Swansea University)

‘Approaches to intellectual disability in the Middle Ages: Thinking about ‘fools’ and ‘idiots”


Physical disability in the Middle Ages has become a rapidly emerging topic for scholarly engagement in the past decade. However, mental, or intellectual, disability has not been adequately researched yet. ‘Even the most radical historians have only ever treated
“intellectual disability” either as a footnote to the history of mental pathology dominated by mental illness, or of disability dominated by the physical disability’ (Goodey, A History of Intelligence and “Intellectual Disability”). This paper seeks to investigate the constructedness of medieval concepts and categories of intellectual impairment, including the problem of imposing modern definitions of ‘cognitive /intellectual/ mental disability’ onto the past. Philosophically, and subsequently judicially, medieval intellectual disability was considered the absence of reason, which contrasted the mentally disabled with the Aristotelian concept of man as the rational animal. Although normative texts will be the primary focus of the paper, some consideration will be given as to how these concepts affected quotidian life for mentally disabled persons, especially by looking afresh at the popular stereotype of the medieval court fool or jester.

The seminar will take place in the Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE.  Doors open at 6pm prompt, seminar will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

See more posts by this author

Comments are closed.